Z becomes formal

I was quite struck, a few years ago, when we went to the New Year’s Day party (which always starts with a hearty country walk) of our friends G and A, when Ro met – oh, Ro.  This isn’t working.  When Ronan met Robin.  They had known each other since they were two years old, but hadn’t met for several years.  Very pleased to see each other, they both stepped forward and immediately shook hands.  I was frankly surprised that two young men – early to mid twenties – would think to greet contemporaries and old, if not close friends like that.  But the handshake isn’t showing any sign of going away and nor, I think, should it.

Having said that, we’ve all, or nearly all of us, embraced the kiss over the last few decades and good for us.  Although I could digress for a while there and talk about the nuances of a single kiss over multiples, the air kiss, the kiss on the cheek, the hug – but that’s one for another post sometime.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine introduced me to her small grandson.  No, wait – she introduced him to me, of course (oh, the nicety of who to mention first on these occasions and the number of times I get it wrong, not because I don’t know but because I just dive in cheerily without thinking).  She was slightly embarrassed, I could see, at having to remind him to shake hands, but he is only four and a little shy.  But she’s right to insist on it, because it makes it a proper greeting from person to person and doesn’t sideline him.  It puts us on an even footing and shows mutual respect and, as he grows older, will relieve him of the awkwardness of wondering how a stranger will expect to be greeted.

This boy is undoubtedly destined to go to a leading public school and end up something of a big cheese somewhere, but that only makes it the more useful for the children of lesser people like me to know what’s what.  Pugsley, for example, is going through the slightly awkward phase of being uncomfortable with hugs and kisses unless they’re from his parents, but hasn’t got the confidence at present to talk his way through a social situation.  However, since I started shaking his hand when we meet, he’s felt a lot more relaxed and doesn’t hang back any longer, afraid I might start kissing him because – well, grannies are bristly and smell faintly of wee, don’t they, by their very nature?  And, I hope, he will gather that it is never an incorrect thing to do when meeting someone for the first time.  Although I do look forward to the day he is less self-conscious and gives me a hug, at least.

I’m sounding very formal and, if you have met me, you’ll know that I’m not at all.  However, slight formality, like etiquette, is meant to ease things, not make them more difficult.   And impressions do matter – and do I have an example?  Dear hearts, what I say is normally evidence-based.

When the high school converted to academy status, the Head thought it was a good time to introduce – well, not a dress code as such, but an expectation of suitable dress.  Most teachers already dressed professionally, but some were quite casual.  He reckoned that jackets and ties should be the norm for the men – after all, they are for the pupils.  This caused no controversy, it was appreciated that it sets a good example.  But not all the more senior teachers were quite comfortable.  A few weeks into the term, I bumped into one, who I’d never seen in anything but casual clothes, wearing a dark suit and I remarked on how smart he looked.  I know him reasonably well (back to modes of greeting: outside school, we’d greet each other with a kiss on the cheek), enough to make a moderately personal remark. He said gloomily that he’d bought a new suit, doubling his formal wardrobe.  The next week, I saw him again at a meeting and he came over to talk to me.  He’d always hated wearing a suit, he said, he felt self-conscious and it put a barrier between him and others, or so he felt.  But now he’d taken to wearing one daily, he realised that people who didn’t know him very well saw him differently – that is, he was treated with more respect, listened to more closely, was being treated as a person to be reckoned with – which he certainly is, I’ve got the utmost respect and liking for him.

But if it had taken a clever and able man until his early fifties to realise this, it’s not surprising that the average teenage pupil at a comprehensive school doesn’t get it either.  Which puts them at a disadvantage at interviews, for a start.  Whether it should or not is another matter.  It simply does.  Equality means going up, not down, because people form judgements whether they know they do or not.

14 comments on “Z becomes formal

  1. janerowena

    Not only does my husband insist on wearing a suit and always dressing perhaps more formally than necessary, he also wears his glasses rather than contact lenses, because he feels he needs as much barrier and gravitas as possible. It certainly works for him, the children still really like him too.

    I have to admit to wrestling my grandson to the floor and tickling him unmercifully to make him give me a kiss. Maybe I’ll unnerve him with a handshake first next month.

  2. Z

    I’ve got a governors’ meeting this afternoon, I’m wearing a nice dress and will add a jacket. Though I’m pretty casual much of the time and sometimes almost live in jeans or an unsuitably (for my age) short skirt in hot weather, I dress the part in school.

    I’ve overstated somewhat, because the last thing I’d want is for anyone not to feel relaxed with me – unless I’ve chosen otherwise, of course – it’s more a matter of young people choosing the impression they give and being confident with a measure of formality when it’s appropriate.

  3. Indigo Roth

    Hey Z! Yep, I agree with all this. That said, I can be shy, too; you probably noticed I shook your hand when I arrived on Saturday but felt comfy enough for a peck on the cheek as I left. And the suit thing is something I learned a long time ago; it totally changes how people perceive and treat you. And (excuse me, single guy talking), I’ve always thought the ladies kinda like it, too 😉 Indigo x

  4. LX

    I worked as a computer geek and that sometimes involved diving under desks, computer room floors, or network closets. Most of my co-workers and first-level supervisors wore jeans and polo or t-shirts. I wore a white oxford dress shirt and tan chinos. I found that I was perceived to be a little higher up on the food chain and received a little less hassle. Of course, if working on weekends or holidays on a big, dirty project, I would wear cargo pants and t-shirt.

  5. Mike and Ann

    My youngest daughter says she likes to see the way her son Matthew (now nineteen) and I always solve this problem. She says that, when we meet,we shake hands as if I’m greeting a contemporary, then give each other a hug as if it were ‘Matthew meeting one of his mates’.

    It seems to work.

  6. Z

    Ro doesn’t normally wear a suit at work, no one does in his office – though he’s always pretty well dressed. He wore one for interview, of course. I’m not sure if he does when he has to go to London for business meetings.

    Since most men are much taller than I am, whether to kiss is usually their initial decision. I’m always slightly surprised by a limp handshake, why would anyone do that?

  7. Blue Witch

    There should be a definitive guide to greetings, like there is (and has been for living memory) in France.

    Towards the end of my time working in schools, I used to hate it when head teachers (male and female) started kissing me on arrival in the morning. When a parent who was employing me kissed me when I met her (having spent several hours prior to the in-school meeting talking by telephone), I knew the end was in sight.

  8. Z

    But the number of kisses varies from region to region – not at all sure how I’d keep a straight face in the four-kiss areas!

    At school, none of the staff would kiss me in front of pupils and rarely in school at all (only three would anywhere, whom I’m particular friends with), though the Head and I might kiss hello and goodbye at our informal meetings, not formal ones. It simply wouldn’t occur to any of us, we have a professional relationship, however friendly, in school. Same with the governors. Seems I am quite formal, really.

  9. Sir Bruin

    I wear a shirt and tie for work. If I leave the office, the jacket is a bright orange hi-vis affair and a hard hat. We are colour coded – white hard hats for staff and yellow for the people who actually do the work. Needless to say, I have a white one.
    As far as greetings go, I am more than content with a handshake. I don’t really do the kissy stuff. I seem to have a no-go perimeter of around 18 inches Anyone within that, who I don’t know really well, triggers my “uncomfortable” gland.

    None of this is terribly relevant, but I thought I’d share it anyway.


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